I don’t want to be a buzzkill during the holiday season. This column ends on a joyful note, I promise. But as 2017 draws to a close, there is a dire truth we must confront. Democracy is under severe pressure world-wide.
Democracy is in retreat, even in places where it has been around long enough to take for granted, and that’s part of the problem.
Democracy is in bad odor in much of the world in 2017. People have lost faith and who can blame them? Democracy has proven ineffective at defending them against devastating income and power inequalities.
When Democratic governments are worthless at mitigating the disruptions of new technologies and impotent against huge global corporations, the logical response to that uselessness is contempt.
That contempt is being expressed by the votes of people around the world, in places where they still vote. More people feel like losers than winners in the new order and they don’t like it. They turn to proto-fascists like Viktor Orban in Hungary, autocrats like Recep Erdogan in Turkey, and dictators like Vladimir Putin of Russia. They vote them in.
Similar anti-democratic movements sprout in Germany, France, Poland, and, sadly, here.
This feels different from the usual “throw the bums out.” This time it’s like the people are throwing themselves out. And turning the mess over to a demagogue, a hater, a blowhard, a charlatan, and losing faith and respect for democratic norms.
That is a very dangerous development, made worse by the ruthless efficiency of real dictators, like Xi in China, who suppress dissent by being lethally effective and nakedly nationalist.
But a dictatorship is only as good as the current dictator. Dictatorships don’t replace a Chamberlain with a Churchill, a Hoover with a Roosevelt, and do it in time to stave off catastrophe. Democracies do, have, and will. As long as the people believe in democracy and democratic government is powerful enough to do the people’s will. And no longer.
We may have passed the “no longer” threshold in 2017. Even here in America, the exemplar of democratic success for the last 240 years. But I think American Exceptionalism is alive and well, because we’ve had the luck to elect the least dangerous, least powerful, and, not to put too fine a point on it, the most stupid demagogue of the current world crop.
How lucky can one land be? While the world goes mad and produces criminal thugs like Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping replaces Party rule with a cult of personality, Saudi Princes play game of thrones and all manner of unshirted hell erupts in Yemen and Venezuela, we get a vaudeville clown as our leader.
A threat to be sure. Who knows how feckless he’ll be with foreign policy? A setback for progress, truth and equality? Unfortunately, that is not fake news. Trump is a corrosive, suppurating wound on the flesh of our fair nation. Republican politicians are reduced to simpering apologists for an emperor who has no clothes, but one hell of a hairdo. But they don’t mind, as long as he will sign their punishing tax and anti-entitlement policies into law.
Meanwhile, the American electorate is distracted with an endless series of salacious scandals. In the old days it was bread and circuses that kept the people entertained and inert. These days it’s a congressman or celebrity who can’t keep his thing in his pants and other shenanigans that rivet the people’s microsecond attention while Rome burns.
Last Christmas America awoke to a lump of coal in its holiday stocking. Democracy has been under severe pressure ever since. But put a lump of coal under enough pressure and it can turn into a diamond.
Democracy can come back from its near-death experience. And when it does, it’ll be right here, in America, where modern democracy started and triumphed. We’ll get that chance because we elected a Caligula with the brains of a Bozo.
He’ll do damage, but he’s too inept and stupid to last long enough to erect an Imperium on Washington’s grave.
Call me a cockeyed realist, but I’m betting the over. We’ve seen this movie before, and the villains weren’t clowns, they were genocidal megalomaniacs. We survived them because of America.
So be of good cheer this Christmas, my friends. Celebrate with friends and family, revel in joy and hope for 2018.
But if some congressman at a Christmas party offers to show you his Yule Log, you should probably say no.